The Medieval Gift Guide, Issue #1 December 1257

Stuck for gift ideas in the year 1257? Here’s some advice from the palaces’ Christmas past.

Christmas gift-giving in the medieval era was very different to how we know it today. Christmas wasn’t just one day but lasted twelve, from the 25 December until Epiphany, and gifts were most commonly given on New Year’s Day or at another time in the Christmas season. Christmas was a time for generosity and charity. Money was a popular gift for poor tenants; however Christmas Day was also traditionally a Quarter Day when rents were due, somewhat negating this generous gesture.

Sharing food and drink was a central tradition in the medieval festive season. Wassailing was a Christmas custom that involved visiting the houses in your town or village and singing carols. The owners would pay the visitors with a drink from their wassail bowl and perhaps something to eat. Because of the time of year and the association with Christmas, the drink in Wassail bowls was often a warmed alcohol, sweetened and spiced. The word Wassail comes from the old English for ‘All Hael’, or ‘Good health.’

Monarchs across Europe would have exchanged gifts on a regular basis throughout the year, to strengthen diplomatic and trade relations, as well as for a show of grandeur and wealth.

At Michaelmas 1255, an elephant arrived on the Kentish coast by boat, along with his keeper Hernicus de Flor. He was a gift for Henry III from the French King Louis IX. The elephant had been brought back from French crusades in Palestine, and was given to the English King as a diplomatic gift. The elephant walked along the Canterbury-London Road and entered the city via boat, arriving at the Tower of London to the astonishment of the crowds. Living quarters were required, and the sheriffs of London paid over £22 for a great wooden elephant house.

Monk and writer Matthew Paris travelled from St Albans to visit the Tower’s latest animal inmate. He described the “beast” as “possessing a rough hide rather than fur, has small eyes at top of its head, and eats and drinks with a trunk.”

The elephant died just two years after his arrival in England, but was just one of countless animals that continued to live in the Tower of London’s menagerie for centuries, many of which were given as gifts to the Monarch.

Christmas was also a good choice of time for a coronation. William the Conqueror was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1066. The coronation celebrations and feasting neatly coincided with the Christmas festivities across the country.

Don’t miss Medieval Christmas at the Tower of London 27 – 31 December:


Watch our video about Henry III’s elephant:

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